Letters from the Library: A chest full of treasures

24 Nov 20 /

Author: Edgardo Civallero

We found a huge trunk under the stairs. Nobody remembers who put it there. It looks like it has videotapes in it. Shall we bring it to you?

It seems that one of the roles of the coordinator of an archive — like the one at Charles Darwin Foundation — is to receive this type of news. And questions.

I must confess that such news always fills me with joy. I like to think that those documents that appear "unexpectedly" in previously unattended places are survivors of a bygone era who have lurked in the shadows for years, waiting for the right moment to re-emerge. Managing an archive implies, among other things, welcoming those survivors with open arms and, as a good guest, taking care of their well-being and spending time talking with them.

Because they usually have many stories to tell.

So they bring me the trunk, which actually turns out to be massive and weighs like a coffin. It's black, made of plastic, has rusty metal locks, airline tags and strings attached to the handle, and white stencil-painted lettering on the lid. The letters indicate that the container was once owned by Elizabeth Pillaert, a renowned scientist who has not been at the Charles Darwin Research Station for at least a decade and a half.

As I open the trunk, I think of Carter and Carnavon opening King Tut's tomb at the beginning of the last century: with bated breath, and longing for a surprise. I know, because I've already gotten the damn spoiler, that there are videotapes inside. But... who knows which ones, of what type, of what periods, in what format...

And, of course, I get my surprise.

[We, archivists, are almost certainly prone to being easily surprised. Or maybe life, pitying us for all the hours we spend among old papers, insects and dust, rewards us with real surprises]

Inside that plastic container are dozens and dozens of videocassettes. Hundreds, probably, stacked on top of each other. I'm sure they were dumped there by someone who needed to store all those records somewhere and repurposed "Elizabeth Pillaert's property" to try and protect them. The most curious thing is that, crowning that mountain of tapes, there are two black rubber flip flops. A classy touch.

I take a look over and begin to understand that in front of my eyes and my hands I have a huge exercise in media archaeology: the study of audiovisual and information media's history. An exciting sub-discipline of archival and library science that is concerned with tracking the evolution of photographs, slides, films, audio recordings, floppy disks and CDs.

I look at the labels as I pass. That is a treasure chest, a kind of time capsule through which I get a lot of audiovisual scraps from the past: work done by CDF scientists and by the communications department, by environmental education programs.

An initial inventory lists 425 items. More than 300 are videocassettes and mini videocassettes of different types (8mm, Hi8, metal), including brands such as Sony, TDK, Fuji, HG, Panasonic or Maxell. The rest are DAT drives, Data Cartridge drives, old audio reels, Mini-CDs, Jaz drives, Zip drives, Optical Disks, and several more.

I still don't know how I am going to visualize all these materials: each type requires its own player, which obviously I do not have. Therefore, at the moment I will not be able to sit down to dialogue with them. Hence, for the time being I will welcome them, clean them, review and repair possible damage, identify them, organize them and gradually recognize them.

A true exercise in media archeology. One that, I'm sure, will give me many more surprises.


Andres Cruz

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